Guide to Bullying Prevention

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Many of us are not consciously aware of how our beliefs about bullying and teasing affect our interactions with young people.

  • When you were a child, what were the messages you received from adults in your life about bullying and teasing?

  • In your work with young people, think back to a time when you did not intervene in a bullying or teasing incident that you now wish you had.

  • To what do you attribute your lack of action?

  • What would you like to say to that target now?

  • What would you like to tell the bully now?

Myth #2: “Bullying affects a small number of kids”

Studies documented in The Bullying Prevention Handbook reveal 75 to 90 percent of adolescents report being bullied during their school years.10

While this figure alone is compelling, all students in a school climate where emotional safety is not assured suffer a diminished capacity to learn. 11 In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman discusses emotional hijacking––a state where we are flooded by our emotions when an event resonates with other painful emotional events in our past. Brain research shows that during moments of emotional flooding, we are unable to engage cognitively or to learn.12 Further research presented by James Garbarino and Ellen deLara in their book And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to protect adolescents from bullying, harassment, and emotional violence shows the level of pain and humiliation felt by both targets and bystanders can be deep and long-lasting.13

In The Bullying Prevention Handbook: A guide for principals, teachers, and counselors, John Hoover and Ronald Oliver note that students in schools that don’t effectively address bullying form negative views about school, school personnel, and even learning. These students then grow to be adults with similar feelings about school, pass those biases on to their children, and become more reluctant to get involved in their children’s schooling.14 It’s a negative cycle affects future generations of students.

It’s important to realize bullying does not merely affect individuals. Taunting, exclusion, and other acts of aggression contaminate the whole school environment. It’s vital that prevention and intervention efforts be aimed not merely at the individual bullies and targets, but at the entire school culture.


Think back to when you were in middle school

  • Describe a time when you either witnessed or were part of a bullying incident (either as a target or bully).

  • How did it make you feel?

By the Numbers

  • 22% of 4th–8th graders felt their academic difficulties were related to peer abuse.15

Myth #3: “Kids can work it out themselves or just tell an adult who will take care of it.”
“I really believe strongly that it's adults' responsibility, not the responsibility of the victim certainly, and not just of the student body, to deal with bullying. It's an adult responsibility.”

Dr. Susan Limber, Bullying Expert, Clemson University16

The Maine Project Against Bullying found that students report 71 percent of the teachers or other adults in the classroom ignored bullying incidents.17

Much bullying happens outside of the ears and eyes of caring school personnel—on sidewalks on the way to and from school, in the schoolyard, on buses, in bathrooms, and on playing fields. All bullying prevention programs must find ways for adults to step up supervision and intervention (including training school personnel to identify and then effectively intervene in bullying), but only a small portion of the problem can be addressed solely by increased adult intervention. It is more critical to shift the culture of the school to a caring environment, one where students are less likely to taunt or isolate other students and where student bystanders intervene on behalf of targets.

For anti-bullying programming to work it must have the participation and investment of the entire school community. This is not to imply in any way that children are responsible for keeping a school safe—that responsibility rests on the shoulders of adults. But children need to be invested as partners in creating a caring culture.

Many adults assume children will not “tattle” on other children who bully, but research shows this is incorrect. Children who believe adults will intervene effectively on their behalf are willing to share critical information regarding bullying events. It’s therefore critical that adults learn to effectively handle incidents of bullying—with targets, bullies, bystanders, and their families—in a way that maintains everyone’s physical and emotional safety. (See Chapter 4 on interventions for more information.)

Myth #4: “Our schools are safe.”

In many ways our schools are safer than most Americans think. A survey presented in Youth Today reported that 71 percent of Americans believe a shooting is likely in local schools, while in reality children have a 1 in 2,000,000 chance of being killed while at school.18

But ask any child if s/he feels safe at school and you are likely to hear the answer “no.” Children feel at risk from all sorts of hurtful conduct—from peers and certain teachers. Even if they aren’t actual targets of abusive conduct, children who witness the abuse of others fear they might be next.

Young people often go to great lengths to avoid school bathrooms, locker rooms, certain hallways, or the floor or domain of upper classman for fear of abuse. And our efforts to ensure children’s safety—from the installation of metal detectors to disaster response drills—ironically have the opposite effect if they are not handled sensitively.

Children, like adults, often perceive the threat to their physical safety as greater than it is in actuality. Strikingly, a study by Garbarino and deLara revealed that children who were asked what made them feel most unsafe at school most commonly answered “teachers.”19

While many of our prevention efforts seek to correct the children, it’s clear that one important place to start is with the adults in the building. Any efforts to bully-proof our schools must also address both real and perceived threats to young people and their emotional and physical safety.

By The Numbers

  • Bullying appears to be on the rise. A follow-up study of bullying by Dan Olweus in 2002 showed the percentage of victimized students had increased by 50% since 1983. Serious bullying (in both degree and frequency) was up by 65%.20

  • Bullying begins in elementary school and appears to peak in middle school.21

Myth #5: “Most targets are kids who are overweight, odd looking, or have some sort of physical problem.”

Research has established that overweight and special needs youth are indeed at higher risk for being targets of bullying.22 But so are gifted children23, and overweight youth are just as likely to be perpetrators of bullying as they are its victims. The physical characteristic which puts children most at risk is being physically smaller and weaker than their peers.24 But the social dynamics of bullying transcend obvious physical differences between bully and target, and center on perceived power imbalance. Those who bully choose verbal harassment or violent behaviors that exploit existing systemic inequalities in our society, such as those relating to race, gender traits, biological sex, disabilities, sexual orientation, and economic disadvantage. (For more information on strategies for teachers in dealing with youth with special needs, see Chapter 3, page 96.)

By the Numbers

The number one reason adolescent boys and girls give for being targeted for abuse is “I just didn’t fit in.”25

A study in School Psychology International reported that 60 percent of students agree with the statement that targets of bullying “brought it on themselves”––even some targets felt that way.26 The tendency in our culture to blame the victim has clearly been internalized by many children. For this reason, the focus should always be on the bullying behavior, not the presumed attributes of the people targeted. The most effective and long-lasting strategy to eliminate bullying is to create a school climate intolerant of harassment and disrespectful behavior. All students can learn to contribute to the school community in ways that widen their social support networks. And everyone can benefit from social learning that builds self-esteem and confidence, skills that will empower youth throughout their lives.

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